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'It's mentally exhausting': ER doctor depicts ICU crisis as cases rises amid health worker shortage

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Posted at 10:23 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-04 12:51:55-04

DENVER — Several crises impacting Colorado hospitals have caused the state's ICU beds to reach their lowest level of availability since the pandemic started.

According to the state's COVID-19 dashboard, only 117 ICU beds are available with 97% currently in use.

A new surge in COVID-19 cases has led to an increase in admissions to state hospitals. Colorado is also struggling with a staffing shortage for hospitals. To add to the pressure, new hospital admissions are filling beds for health concerns many patients put off during the span of the pandemic.

"We're seeing a lot of trauma," said Dr. Eric Hill, the EMS medical director at The Medical Center of Aurora. "We're seeing a lot of overdoses. We're seeing a lot of mental health issues and psych and suicidal [attempts]. We're seeing a lot of medical problems and heart attacks and strokes."

To deal with the strain on the hospital system, the Colorado Hospital Association has implemented Tier 3, the highest tier available, for the Combined Hospital Transfer Center in charge of moving patients during a shortage of beds.

The highest tier allows the center to become the single point of reference for moving patients to hospitals with more availability. Implementing Tier 3 also allows hospitals to transfer patients without their consent but requires hospitals with space to accept new ICU patients.

Implementing Tier 3 is a move not done during the pandemic even during the fall and winter peak in 2020.

"We're at a critical capacity, but we're seeing that across all the hospitals," Hill said. "There's been days where every single hospital has been on diversion."

The problem is exasperated by a lack of employees. Burnout in the hospital system during the coronavirus pandemic has led to an exodus of many on the front lines int emergency rooms and ICUs.

"It's mentally exhausting," said Hill. "We're seeing across the entire system right now in the Mile High area, particularly is large volume of patients combined with problems with staffing and boarding of patients

The problems are not unique to Colorado. Nationwide, 18% of hospital workers have quit their jobs since 2020, and another 12% have been laid off.

Before the pandemic, the industry was short 300,000 workers. Now, hospitals lack nearly 2 million.

With so few hospital workers, Hill says it will be difficult to reactivate COVID-19 overflow facilities because there are not enough people to host them. With fall and winter COVID-19 and flu cases looming, he says Coloradans can help lower the hospital cases by getting vaccinated.

"It's really a preventable disease at this point to avoid hospitalization," he said. "And we're still back to where we were a year ago before the vaccine came out."